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Program offers free legal advice for domestic violence victims 

 
Free webcam consultations available from the Virtual Legal Clinic at Center for Prevention of Abuse

Peoria Journal Star
June 29, 2012
By Nick Vlahos

PEORIA — From Gina Zalazinski's perspective, there is nothing cold and impersonal about computers.

The Peoria mother of eight is a domestic violence victim who availed herself of the Virtual Legal Clinic, in which webcams and high-speed Internet connections transmit free legal advice. Zalazinski first used it Friday morning.

"It made me feel like I was important," Zalazinski said Friday afternoon at The Center for Prevention of Abuse. "The lawyer was wonderful from the beginning. He answered all my questions.

"I walked out of here feeling a lot happier and empowered."

That's the point of the clinic, which has been tested since December at the center's offices in Peoria and Pekin. A second facility, in Jacksonville, is to begin using the technology next week.

Eventually, the program is envisioned to cover mostly rural areas in downstate Illinois where domestic violence lawyers and shelters can be far flung.

"It's just one of those ideas that seemed to fit a need," said Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who spoke during a news conference at the Peoria center.

Simon's office is promoting the program, which is not being funded out of the state budget. The Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence financed computer equipment for attorneys who didn't have it.

The four lawyers who are participating in the project aren't being paid, according to Martha Herm, the executive director of the Peoria center. Webcam consultations - the Peoria center has handled about a dozen so far, Herm said - usually involve issues such as leases, automobile ownership and child custody.

"It means something to be able to see the face," Simon said.

Attorneys use aliases, so they can't be traced.

"Some of these abusers are pretty clever, with all the cyberstalking," Herm said.

The Peoria center's rural-urban mix made it appealing as the test site, Herm said. Her facility serves about 3,500 clients a year in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties.

Herm said the reaction so far has been extremely positive.

"One woman said, 'The lawyer explained things and provided options I never, ever would have thought about,'" Herm said. "I think that's really the beauty of all this."